The RHI inquiry in Northern Ireland has led to concerns about a record ‘void’ that has left room for doubt and suspicion. Ben Worthy argues that the lack of a record might aid political deniability, but means that politicians also can’t be truly exonerated when accused of wrongdoing.
Marilyn Stathern, in her famous article on the ‘Tyranny of transparency’, asked: ‘what does visibility conceal’? While openness can shed light on some areas, it can also create shadows and shade to hide in. One of the biggest fears for transparency campaigners is that openness will create an opposite and equal reaction. Instead of letting in the light, could freedom of information laws, open meetings or open data lead to officials and politicians trying to hide from them, or even fight them? Could it create what’s called a ‘chilling effect’, whereby officials and politicians bury their decisions elsewhere?
Finding any firm evidence for resistance, avoidance or concealment is notoriously difficult. It could take place in numerous ways, whether avoiding questions or requests, keeping records and decisions off paper, or using non-official emails or networks like WhatsApp. It’s hard to prove a negative, that something isn’t happening and, if avoidance done well, it should stay hidden. Only the most incompetent or inept are likely to be caught.
However, it now looks as though transparency campaigners’ worst nightmare has come to pass in Northern Ireland’s RHI scandal, as detailed in Sam McBride’s new book Burned. The RHI scandal, as the later Inquiry FAQ explains, concerns ‘the non-domestic renewable heat incentive… a financial incentive for businesses to move away from non-renewable sources of energy’. However, the FAQ goes on, ‘how the scheme came about in the form in which it was adopted, how it has been operated and the possible financial consequences of the scheme have become the source of considerable public concern’. You can see the background here and a timeline. Continue reading →
The first part of this blog looked at Northern Ireland’s troubled experience with government without ministers for the last year and a half; while the Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry offered colourful but not uplifting revelations about the way it had been conducted under devolution; and Westminster’s conduct of its responsibilities was widely questioned. Alan Whysall asks what lies behind these problems?
A lack of interest in good government and public policy has long been part of the Northern Ireland political culture. The dialogue in politics and the media has always readily reverted to the traditional issues – and more now that the parties are not constrained by the need to work together.
Partly, this illustrates the seriousness of the political and community divide that politics must seek to bridge. But the reflection of that divide in the structure of politics in Northern Ireland also means that no alternative government is on offer during elections, so misconduct in government is harder for the electorate to sanction. If the great priority of most electors is to support their community’s champion against the other side, the detail of the champion’s conduct in government gets lost. Continue reading →
With no ministers in charge since March 2017, public administration in Northern Ireland faces serious challenges. Civil servants have been attempting to keep things running, but on collapsing legal foundations. A public Inquiry has raised issues about competence, commitment and propriety in the old devolved government. There is little energy behind restoration of devolved government, and little lead from London. The lack of attention to good government, suggests Alan Whysall, is a serious weakness in Northern Ireland political culture that must be tackled. The first part of this blog outlines the current challenges; the second, what might be done about them.
There is a side of Northern Ireland that revels in its disasters. A whole quarter of Belfast is after all named after the Titanic, rather than the many Harland and Wolff ships that did not sink. So there was resentment when the Guinness Book of Records recently denied Northern Ireland’s claim to have gone for longer than anyone else without a government (on grounds of Westminster’s ultimate ability to intervene).
There has been no government at all as respects devolved matters since January 2017. The position is worse than in most states ‘without government’, including Guinness’ reigning champion Belgium, which have had ministers exercising caretaker functions. Northern Ireland has a legal void.
The larger political stakes around the collapse of devolution and profound disagreement over Brexit have been outlined in earlier pieces. They have continued to worsen. The focus of this blog is issues of governance – which however bear closely on future prospects of sustaining political progress. Continue reading →
In December the government published its latest list of special advisers, revealing a small reduction in numbers under Theresa May compared to David Cameron’s 2015 government, with the reduction falling mostly on departments rather than the centre. In this post Ben Yong and Harmish Mehta examine the new list. They argue that by reducing the number of special advisers in departments Prime Minister May has prioritised political control over technocratic measures of effectiveness.
When Theresa May first became Prime Minister there were a number of reports (including in The Times, The Telegraph and Civil Service World) that she had insisted on a cap on the salaries of special advisers (spads) – which in effect would limit both the number and quality of spads appointed. This cap, the reports said, would deter good people from entering government. How true are these claims?
Just before Christmas, the government made its annual data release, setting out the number of spads and how they are distributed across government. There are now 83 spads in government; down from 95 under Cameron’s 2015 government, according to the data release. The centre (broadly defined as No. 10 and the Cabinet Office) has ‘lost’ just one spad; the key Whitehall departments have lost eleven (most significantly from the merging of BIS and DECC into BEIS; and in the Treasury). So there has been a drop in numbers, but this has fallen mostly on departments, not the centre. There has been the usual grumble about salaries and cost, but that is standard fare.
The bigger question is what all this says about May’s government, and more generally, British government. In popular parlance, spads are regarded as a waste of money and at worst, a pernicious breed of quasi-politicians. Within Westminster and Whitehall, however, they have long been accepted as part of British government. Spads are people the minister can completely trust, in a lonely and difficult role; they provide political advice of a kind that career civil servants often cannot; they can help coordinate government. It is this latter view of spads which informs some criticisms of May’s policy on spads (see The Spectator and The Telegraph). Limiting the number of spads and the kind of spads via a salary cap means limiting government effectiveness.
In 2015 the Conservative government has approved the creation of five Extended Ministerial Offices (EMOs), enabling ministers to recruit more special advisers and temporary civil servants. This development, which has gone unreported by the media, was unearthed by Athanassios Gouglas. In this post he and Marleen Brans explain the background to these developments and put them in comparative context.
On 27 November 2013 the UK government agreed that Secretaries of State and other ministerial heads of departments may appoint an Extended Ministerial Office (EMO). The development was the brainchild of Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, and announced in the Cabinet Office report ‘Civil Service Reform Plan: One Year On’, which was published in July 2013. It came as a follow up to a June 2013 report commissioned by Francis Maude from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) titled ‘Accountability and Responsiveness in the Senior Civil Service’. The rationale was that British government ministers are significantly under-supported in comparison with other countries, including those within the Westminster administrative tradition. Some media outlets presented the decision as a mini revolution with ministers getting new powers to appoint at their own discretion the civil servants and staff who will work in larger ministerial offices. In view of establishing extended ministerial offices under coalition government executive politics, the question was quickly raised as to whether the UK was moving down the road of establishing a ministerial cabinet system?
Michelle Silongan rounds up the recent launch of Ben Yong and Robert Hazell’s book on Special Advisers at the Institute for Government.
Last month the Institute for Government hosted the launch for the new book Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do and why they matter by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell. This well-attended event opened with a summation of the main findings and recommendations from the Constitution Unit’s eighteen-month study on the role of special advisers.
As Robert Hazell noted at the start of the event, Special Advisers – or ‘spads’ – deserve recognition as a mini profession. However, this recognition demands a better understanding of how to strengthen and develop this resource that ministers and Number 10 have come to rely upon. Through their research, the authors articulate three specific responses for making spads more effective: better recruitment, increased support and skills development.
Spads clearly matter to those who seek their counsel, establishing why and identifying their role within the mechanisms of government, party politics and policy development has been an under-researched area. Mapping the impact of spads can be difficult given their behind-the-scenes nature, but the use of interviews and surveys of former spads across governments from 1979 to today to inform the findings of Special Advisers, making the book a distinctive and important contribution to the field.
Three former spads also took part in the panel, each underscoring the complex balancing of roles spads face in their position. Jo Foster, former Deputy Chief of Staff to Nick Clegg, remarked that when starting out, spads often have ‘zero comprehension of the breadth of the machine and how to navigate it’. However, it is from this starting position that spads would have to emerge as gatekeepers, navigating competing demands. Rather than being drawn into ‘meltdown crises’, for example, Foster noted how she focused on caring on the ‘front of house’ and ‘keeping the show on the road’.
‘Won’t somebody think of the spads?!’ said one wag following the recent reshuffle. We here at the Constitution Unit (and Hull) have been. We’ve just written a book on spads, gloriously entitled Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do and why they matter. We’ve spent 18 months looking at special advisers between 1979 and 2013: all 626 of them. We interviewed over 100 people, including almost 40 spads and 30 ministers (both former and current).
As part of this we’ve been looking at the tenure and distribution of spads over time, both within a government and over successive parliamentary terms. So here we present an interim analysis of the last spads reshuffle.*
The first point is turnover. Of the 63 Spads who began in 2010, only 31 remain. Half have left. The majority of the initial batch who remain are connected to ‘the big beasts’ of the government (David Cameron, George Osborne, Nick Clegg etc)—or at least, those whose ministers have not been reshuffled out.
But this misses the bigger story. The total number of spads employed by the Coalition between 2010 and 2014 is around 175. In fact, the number of spads who leave has been increasing as time goes on. In 2010 five left; in 2013 around 30 did. This makes sense: spads leave because of reshuffles, exhaustion, wanting to do something new—and getting out while the going is still good. But they must be replaced.